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Electric Vehicles, Past and Present

By Tom Tate

It may come as a bit of a surprise to know that the electric vehicle predates the internal combustion engine by a large margin. In fact, at the turn of the 20th century when the Model T was just a gleam in Henry Ford’s eye, the electric vehicle made up 38% of all American automobiles, just 2% behind steam power. And, as electricity came to more homes, their use grew steadily, especially among the wealthy who were attracted to their luxurious style.

In a few large cities, taxi companies used the electric vehicle with great success while in Hartford, the Hartford Electric Light Company developed an innovative program where it provided charged batteries to electric fleet trucks based on a mileage fee and other charges.

The discovery of enormous petroleum reserves in the 1920s and the steady improvement of highway infrastructure laid the groundwork for the electric vehicle’s demise. As gasoline became plentiful and inexpensive, the gasoline powered automobile took the lead and never gave it back. And as more good roads led to longer trips, the electric vehicles limited range further reduced its appeal.

The gasoline engine has reigned supreme as the king of automobiles since then. However, just like the 1920s, a variety of events have occurred that have created a resurgence for the electric vehicle. Environmental concerns, a drive for energy independence and personal preference are all leading to this renewed interest. As a result, nearly all major auto makers offer an electric variant in their lineup. Common names today include the Prius, Leaf, Volt and Tesla.

There are two primary forms of electric vehicle on the roads of the world. One is all electric, using only batteries for power. The second is a hybrid that integrates a small gasoline engine with a battery system.

At its most basic, an electric vehicle uses batteries connected to electric motors that drive the wheels. Flip the switch, put it in gear and the car moves out. Still, when the batteries drain, you have to find a place to plug in and power up. For the Tesla with its 200+ mile range, recharging takes about 45 minutes. Eventually, more electric recharging points will become available and technology will reduce the recharge time.

The hybrid electric vehicle combines electric drive motors with a small gasoline engine. Let’s take a look at how the Prius operates. At startup, the Prius is in all electric mode. Once it hits a certain speed, say around 40, the gasoline engine starts and carries the load to reach highway speeds. At that point, the electric motors turn back on and the car performs a balancing act using both power sources to maintain speed and optimize the efficiency of the vehicle. The hybrid does not need to be recharged as the vehicle has a generator that charges the batteries while it is in use and it has no real range limitation.

If you are considering an electric vehicle that requires charging at home, please let your cooperative know. When your home is first connected to the grid, your co-op sizes the wires and transformers to serve a particular load. When you add a large load like a vehicle charger, it can exceed the design capacity and overload grid components. To avoid this, just let them know when your new vehicle hits the garage. This allows your co-op to keep your service safe and reliable. In fact, any time you add a major load like a central air system or pool, the same advice applies.